Hacking the Habit Loop – Making Ramadan Year-Long


Omar Farooq, USA 

Ramadan of 2022 CE, or 1443 AH of the Islamic Calendar, has just come to an end. We have so much to be joyful about and celebrate. However, every year, we hit this reset button and right when its in the rear-view mirror, the climb against our old habits seems daunting to say the least. 

As we celebrate, we are reminded by the Fifth Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), that our celebrations must be balanced with the self-reflection that this month brought. He stated in his Eid al-Fitr sermon of 2021:

In fact, we can only reap the true blessings of this bounty of Allah, when we truly understand the purpose of Ramadan and Eid. If we have truly reformed ourselves and developed good habits, then they should clearly be visible after a period of thirty days.’[1]

So, how can we make the effects of Ramadan last until the following year, when we have another opportunity to reinvigorate our efforts to reach even higher levels of devotion, sacrifice, and Divine pleasure? Let us delve a little deeper into the psychology of habits. 

Hacking the Habit Loop 

The first and foremost point of reflection must be: what is the basis and foundation of any habit. When we understand this, then we can understand why Ramadan is such a powerful force that transforms the lives of hundreds of millions of Muslims across time and space. This is exactly what His Holiness (aba) has advised us to do when we set out for our reformation in his sermons on self-reformation. He stated:

Reformation of any particular thing can happen and the means to affect such a reformation can only be employed once we know the reasons behind the particular deficiency…’[2]

Otherwise, he states further, we will return to our old way very quickly after a temporary fix.[3]

Therefore, we must search for the motivators and root causes of our good activities during the month of Ramadan. To understand this, let us look at habits and what powers them. 

Modern research in behavioral psychology has revealed that habits are generally constructed in loops. Many books have been written on this subject in the recent past, including The Power of Habitsby Charles Duhigg and Atomic Habitsby James Clear. Benefitting from this research, we learn that habits are formed in the following pattern and cycle:

Cue:Trigger that starts the habit

Routine: The behavior that ensues, that is commonly known as the habit

Reward:The sensation / payoff resulting from the routine.

Charles Duhigg explains in his book The Power of Habits, that the cue can be anything that we can sense, through sight, sound, smell, feeling, taste or being present in a certain time or location. Then, the routine, which we generally call the habit, is started automatically or semi-automatically with little conscious effort. Either we are satisfied mentally or receive a tangible reward and satisfaction from this routine, and thus the cycle renews upon each trigger by the cue or cues (there may be multiple cues for one routine).[4]

So, how do we go about hacking this loop and taking maximum benefit from it? The simplest answer to this is: just like we did in Ramadan.

Hacking the Loop: Substitution

Ramadan is the perfect time to see the result of new routines substituted into our lifestyle. Whether it is waking early, eschewing vain activities, not remaining idle, or various other virtuous routines, our regular day shifts into a new schedule. This is further powered by the feeling of communal support and togetherness.

The Imam of the age, the Promised Messiah (as) explains real effects of fasting as: 

It should be remembered that the fast does not mean merely that a person should abstain from food and drink over a certain period. During the fast one should be occupied greatly with the remembrance of God. The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) occupied himself greatly with worship during the month of Ramadan. During that month one should discard ones preoccupation with eating and drinking; and cutting asunder from these needs should address oneself wholly towards God.[5]

Looking at the act of fasting through this profound lens reveals many important aspects. What we see is that we have the amazing ability to substitute new routines into our schedules, which is unlocked through fasting. For example, we may still have access to our TVs, social media, internet, and even habits such as smoking. Yet, our practices and environment in Ramadhan makes these cues weaker. Our new practices start forming new loops that we repeat over the course of Ramadan. This month-long repetition is crucial in strengthening their power and effectiveness. [6]

It is to this effect that the Holy Qur’an states regarding sincere and correctly performed prayer:

اِنَّ الصَّلٰوۃَ تَنۡھٰی عَنِ الۡفَحۡشَآءِ وَ الۡمُنۡکَرِ ؕ وَ لَذِکۡرُ اللّٰہِ اَکۡبَرُ

‘Surely, Prayer restrains one from indecency and manifest evil, and remembrance of Allah indeed is the greatest virtue’ (29:46)

In essence, prayer weakens bad cues and routines through replacement of the routine, while granting similar higher level rewards than through any other routine or practice. Ramadhan allows for this transition to happen more easily through a total environment change and collective focus towards goodness. 

The greatest example of this can be observed amongst the companions of the Holy Prophet (sa). The entirety of that society was drowned in love for alcohol, gambling, and other such vain practices. Yet, they were, through the company and moral training of the Holy Prophet (sa), able to transform their entire existence. How did such an unfathomable change happen? It happened through the same means: substitution and replacement.

The greatest lover of the Holy Prophet (sa), the Promised Messiah (as) writes in his famous Qasida Fi Madha Rasulullah (poemin the praise of the Holy Prophet (sa)), that the companions eschewed their older pleasures and formed a love for prayers. This happened through substituting new routines in place of old ones, which achieved similar, yet higher levels of the same reward:

Prayers effectively replaced their pleasurable habits such as drinking. The companions experienced the joy and reward of true prayer and striving in the cause of Allah, and gradually eschewed other lesser joys and pleasures. The cues related to those habits became weak through this experience and substitution. However, the reward, such as pleasure, is in essence the same, however at a much grander scale than any earthly drink or comfort could grant. 

In summary, fasting and prayer teach us restraint and substitution. Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmed M.A. (ra) explains in his Forty gems of Beauty:

Fasting is called (Ṣaum) in Arabic, which means holding ones self in restraint.” This [is a] disciplinary form of worship’[7]

Therefore, we learn restraint and substitution through fasting. However, after Ramadan it becomes harder to continue these lessons because Ramadan and its total environment acts as crutches for us. Once the crutches are removed, we must learn to put some proverbial weight on our legs through personal effort.

His Holiness (aba) stated in his Eid al-Fitr sermon of 2022:

‘On this day, we ought to make a vow that we will continuously strive to fulfil the rights of Allah the Almighty along with the rights of His creation. It is only then that we will truly be commemorating Eid. This is the kind of Eid we should strive to attain. Allah the Almighty has drawn our attention towards these rights at numerous instances in the Holy Qur’an. If we make a pledge on this day of Eid to focus on fulfilling these rights – which I have generally been mentioning in the previous Friday sermons – and make this an integral part of our lives, then we will attain the objective of Ramadan and also become among those who fulfil the true purpose of celebrating Eid.’

May Allah Almighty allow each and every one of us to truly experience a grand life-long change in ourselves. Ameen.

About the Author: Omar Farooq is a graduate from the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada. He currently serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community under MTA (Muslim Television Ahmadiyya) International USA Studios.


[1]Eid-ul-Fitr Sermon on May 14th, 2021

[2](Friday Sermon Dec 13, 2013)


[4]Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Toronto: Anchor Canada

[5]Malfuzat, vol. IV, pp. 256-257

[6]Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Toronto: Anchor Canada

[7]Forty Gems of Beauty, pg. 41